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Sunday, September 28, 2003


"Islamic Spain has been hailed for its 'convivencia' — its spirit of tolerance in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims, created a premodern renaissance," Edward Rothstein writes in the New York Times (reg req'd). Maria Rosa Menocal's book The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain argues "that Andalusia's culture was 'rooted in pluralism and shaped by religious tolerance,' particularly in its prime — a period that lasted from the mid-eighth century until the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in 1031."

But Rothstein argues that the past didn't live up to our fondest expectations:

Andalusian governance was also based on a religious tribal model. Christians and Jews, who shared Islam's Abrahamic past, had the status of dhimmis — alien minorities. They rose high but remained second-class citizens; one 11th-century legal text called them members of "the devil's party." They were subject to special taxes and, often, dress codes. Violence also erupted, including a massacre of thousands of Jews in Grenada in 1066 and the forced exile of many Christians in 1126.

In fact, throughout Andalusian history — under both Islam and Christianity — religious identity was obsessively scrutinized. There were terms for a Christian living under Arab rule (mozarab), a Muslim living under Christian rule (mudejar), a Christian who converted to Islam (muladi), a Jew who converted to Christianity (converso), a Jew who converted but remained a secret Jew (marrano) and a Muslim who converted to Christianity (morisco). . . .

Ms. Menocal cites the ways Islamic styles appear in Spanish synagogues (one, in Toledo, even incorporating Koranic inscriptions) and in the 14th-century Christian palace the Real Alacazar in Seville. But far from exhibiting convivencia, these resemblances display the power of a culture as dominant as American popular culture is now: it is imitated even if otherwise opposed.

This is a fascinating. But I'm most struck by this aspect of the article:

Tolerance may have left less of a cultural mark than intolerance: the historian Joel L. Kraemer has suggested that in Andalusia, a sense of precariousness inspired mysticism, esoteric teachings and a "prudent dissimulation" before Islamic superiors. . . .
But there was also something intrinsically astonishing about Andalusian culture. A visitor feels that instantly in its surviving buildings. They, too, invite idealization, but their power has little to do with notions of tolerance or liberality.

In the great mosque of Córdoba, for example, begun in the eighth century, the geometric effects are breathtaking. Cascading matrices of arched stone, which once framed thousands of worshippers, lead the eyes outward toward the ever-receding edges of perceptible space. Later Islamic styles retain that sense of enclosure and complexity: filigreed ornamentation surrounds arches and windows, shaping the inner world as much as framing the outer one.

But these varieties of Islamic style, far from reflecting a humanistic vision, suggest a world governed by the rigors of the intellect and the strictures of law. That world, whether in a mosque or a palace, presumes submission and declares mastery. It also seduces, for within its all-encompassing bounds, playful ornamentation and speculation take flight.

But the individual is not the focus of attention. The position or status of the individual is. This is quite different from the humane ideal so often attached to Andalusia's name. The outcome is not a version of tolerance, though at its best it can offer a version of the sublime. The viewer is absorbed in a formal world that overwhelms, inspiring awe with intricacies that seem beyond comprehension.

("Was the Islam of Old Spain Truly Tolerant?" Edward Rothstein. New York Times 9.27.03, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 28 September 2003 at 7:49 AM

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